Book Review: “Back to the Dirt” — An American Apocalypse in Progress
By David Daniel
All of the characters in Back to the Dirt are, in a sense, survivalists, people clinging onto what’s long gone, stockpiling karma for an apocalypse that is already upon them.
Back to the Dirt by Frank Bill. FGS Originals (paperback), 319 pages, $18.
“In Miles’s world there was no God. That belief had been destroyed by the vigilance of the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army. Sometimes it was the gunfire traveling football fields of distance across rice paddy crops or exploding from the jungle brush that lined the rutted roads of Da Nang. Gunfire that ripped a grunt’s brain from his skull as he swept the roads for land mines leading in and out of Hill 37 or Hill 65. A five-mile trek where explosive devices … buried beneath the earth with an oxidized nail touching a blasting cap that, when weighted down by the pressing of a marine’s boot, the trespass of a vehicle, or a tank’s heft, metal and human would become one and the same, an explosion that dispersed body parts into unrecognizable shapes.”
So opens Frank Bill’s third novel, Back to the Dirt. The story is viewed through the bedeviled consciousness of Miles Knox, a 57-year-old factory worker who, as a high school dropout, found purpose as a Marine in Vietnam. It’s been four decades since he served, but the war remains as menacingly present as the clanking machinery of the industrial plant where Miles works processing “dirt” — clay for use as a thickener in polymers and paints. He is a tough, self-contained man who hangs onto a conventional, but enduring, image of masculinity. He knocks back bourbon in a local VFW hall in his off time, or at home, in his garage gym, he compulsively slams iron (and the faces of people he deems have wronged him). He’s a bright, aggrieved, at times bewildered guy, made bellicose via his use of anabolic steroids. Still, to his credit, Miles doesn’t openly court trouble that hasn’t courted him first.
Recently, Miles has found new purpose in the form of a romance with Shelby, 30 years his junior, who works as a stripper because the money is better than what she’d make at Walmart. She is leathery, self-aware and, like Miles, haunted by the traumas of her own past. Her father, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, fostered incest between Shelby and her twin brother Wylie when they were growing up.
Shelby is a fair match for Miles. She is smart and reflective. She is clear-eyed about how she earns her living. She dances nude “for any and all shade of suckers, swine, suits, and grease monkeys. Men who’d come sip on ten-dollar Cokes, near beers and gaze at shapely flesh as it bounced, rubbed, caressed, pinched, and teased, fleshy assets for currency that enticed others to lay folds of green down. Men with desires and fetishes not met at home, thinking they’d be a sugar daddy. Thinking one day they’d take a girl away from the life of dancing and earning, give her a new life in a nice home … keep her all to himself…. Suckers, Shelby always thought, suckers and pigs. It was just a way for her to earn a living, nothing more, nothing less.” But these unblinkered insights are hard-won. Like Miles, Shelby comes to face to face with the consequences of her past — in her case, the incest she endured when she was younger, which has also contributed to her twin brother’s death from a drug overdose.
The novel’s primary cast includes Nathaniel, a former county cop whose Oxy-dealer brother and sister-in-law were killed by a disgruntled customer, leaving behind their young son, Shadrach, whom Nathaniel takes on, vowing revenge. He operates by a timeworn code of honor. Though not close, he and Miles (whom he views as a “damaged soul,” like himself) share a mutual respect and understanding. In the wake of his brother’s murder, Nathaniel “wanted to remember him the way he’d once been before his disability and drug addiction. Hardworking with strong-minded opinion until he’d hurt his back and waiting on disability checks in the mail like a child waiting to open Christmas presents. When Nathaniel thought about it, it was sad.… that was what drugs did, they robbed a working person of their worth, wilted their mind with a weakness for dependency.”
Beyond this trio are arrayed a set of bleary characters, assorted bad-tempered types trying to get by in the rural hardscrabble world they inhabit in rural southern Indiana, near the Kentucky border.
Bill’s approach is to keep our perceptions of the landscape and his characters slightly off-kilter, an effect achieved by dividing the story into two sections and an epilogue. The narrative is chopped up into small, jump-cut-style scenes. The frequent head-hopping means that readers are not always immediately clued into whose “story” they’re in. The effect is as if you are experiencing the action from behind the bug-smeared windows of a speeding pickup truck with a mixtape blasting. The story emerges, but only after it has been sifted through various alternative psychological states (PTSD, night dreams, flashbacks) and/or chemical lenses (alcohol, steroids, meth, and, in an interesting generational throwback, a prolonged blotter-acid trip worthy of Hunter S. Thompson, minus the humor). You are perpetually kept off-balance, cocooned in an unsettled, visceral hyperkinesis enhanced by the force of Bill’s language.
In one chilling facet of Miles’s story, he is increasingly haunted by memories of his time in country (and conversations with his friend Childers, a kind of sidekick from the mud and blood and bones of their days humping the boonies together). He relives a nightmarish encounter with a unit of US special op soldiers. Because of an amorally lax command structure, the unit has gone rogue in its mission to target Viet Cong: they are killing young and old at will. The fighters have degenerated into trophy hunters, collecting ears and scalps. In Miles’s dark paranoid vision — and one of the scariest scenes in the novel — they’ve become cannibals.
Back to the Dirt is a self-consciously “graphic” novel, bleak in the extreme, rife with Bill’s aggressively raw imagery and descriptions. One example: “In the trace of light from the moon, his face was ghouled with veins throbbing at the temples.… his eyes recessed into his brainpan like slick black marbles.” Here’s another: “The boy had a confused stare in the hilts of his orbs, like a schizophrenic lost in the medication of their numbing.” Of Nathaniel’s being haunted by things he’d seen on the job as a county cop: “His complexion was smeared like a dream one couldn’t recollect, being delivered in fragments and knots of bone and red to a parched mind.” Or Miles, remembering his father: “a good man until the cancer gnawed him from existence.”
The dialogue tends toward the kind of smart mouth, crispy one-uppers contoured for word balloons. Even the most booze-and-Oxy-raddled characters spit lines Frank Miller would be thrilled to write. Their comebacks are a downright kick to read: “Remove yourself from my sight but remember, this ain’t over, hear me, this ain’t over!” And: “American or NVA, that’s why we’re here. To find the killers, decimate accusations. Report back before some whistle-dick journalist breaks the story on the evening news.” Miles tells a hostile old drunk: “If I didn’t like you I’d break your bony toothpick ass into two parts and use you to pick my teeth.”
All of the characters in Back to the Dirt are, in a sense, survivalists, people clinging onto what’s long gone, stockpiling karma for an apocalypse that is already upon them. There’s not enough work to sustain them — or at least not the kind of work they are willing to do. They stumble through barrooms, meth houses, and VFW halls, pinball through the rural landscape of hills and hollows, where a lake is “a reservoir of nicotined glass.” And, of course, everyone’s got guns. Their lives resemble the rusting cars and castoff appliances that litter the terrain. Among the more facile generalizations about America is the one that sees it as polarized into a simple binary. The coasts are populated by the elites and the rest is flyover country. Frank Bill’s novel is a sardonic vision of a flyover country that we are wise to fly over.
A reader is tempted to find analogues in the stories. There is the continued cultural/economic debilitation of a confused and misbegotten military adventure in Southeast Asia. But the repercussions here are much more revelatory of the specific kind of carnage in contemporary America, the result of fierce and often senseless polarization. Bill’s novel is not despairing in toto: dark as it is out there, there are acts that give hope. Miles and Nathaniel are both willing to go far in their effort to try to set wrongs right. Yet both are rational — or would that be human? — enough to stop short of full-on vigilantism. And then there are those occasional small oases of amusement, often found in the coarse zip of the verbal exchanges between adversaries. That humor suggests that, beyond our divisions, mutual understanding might be found in recognizing the absurdity of our common plight.
Arts Fuse spoke recently to Frank Bill via Zoom:
AF: Your voice — though relentlessly your own — invites comparison to others. I’m thinking Denis Johnson, Harry Crews, Hunter Thompson, and the Southern Gothic tangles of Faulkner and Carson McCullers. In fact, you name check Bukowski, but I think that, for all his profanity, he’s softer.
Frank Bill: (Laughs) Yeah, he is. Denis Johnson, yeah. Faulkner. Larry Brown was an inspiration when I first started writing. Cormac McCarthy. I love Hunter S. Thompson. I love Southern literature. When I read those authors, it doesn’t sound any different than what I grew up around. Drinking and driving, tough marriages, tough life … my dad hanging out at the VFW hall, mother playing card games.
AF: In the book, virtually every character sees the world through a distorted lens. PTSD owing to military action, family trauma, substance abuse … and your story structure reinforces this sense of distortion. What decisions went into that technique?
Bill: That’s basically the way I write. A broken narrative. I always pull from personal experience: PTSD from my father. Steroids, friends and people I know. I’ve been into weight training since I was 11 or 12 — into Schwarzenegger and Rambo. People I knew had issues with drugs, got into cooking meth. It’s mainly the area where I grew up, the people I saw. My best friend is a cop and I’d do ride-alongs and just see things. My mom growing up was abused by her father. Those were common stories when I was growing up. We didn’t use the TV much, we told stories. Those things always stuck with me as a kid. But until I started writing, I didn’t realize I had this rich well of life experience — all this crazy shit to pull from. (Laughs)
AF: It seems to work. It’s a harrowing book.
Bill: Yeah. I don’t write anything that’s lighthearted. If you like hugs and kisses, you’re not going to get it from anything I write. (Laughs).
David Daniel’s new book is Beach Town, a collection of stories set on the South Shore of Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org